Notorious Blogging Spot

As some of you will know, last weekend I embarked on a rather elaborate road trip with a good friend of mine, who we shall call Gareth because, well, that’s his name.

I won’t go into detail explaining what it was about, who it was for, and why we were doing it, as I covered all of that in entry #71 (‘The Blog Trip’) but, briefly, we were attempting to visit all twenty-two football grounds in Stockport County’s league (as at last season), in just one weekend, to try and raise funds for local children’s cancer charity, Kidscan.

Now, I could sum up our trip in just three words – ‘we nailed it’ – but that would not be doing the adventure justice, and would not be telling the full tale. And, oh boy, do we have some tales to tell….

Saturday 25th June 2016 – 08:00

Start

We aimed to depart around 8:00am and, as became something of a trend over the weekend, we were bang on time. Waved off by the two ladies who run County’s club shop, Gareth’s wife and son, and another County fan, ‘Northyorksexile’ (who is, thankfully, an exiled County fan living in North Yorks, rather than a North York ‘Sexile’ – whatever that may be), we set off.

In the two days which followed, we visited all twenty-two ‘official’ grounds (plus eight ‘bonus’ ones); took a thoroughly underwhelming trip across the Humber Bridge; gate-crashed a wedding reception and a children’s birthday party; and witnessed an enormous pair of breasts, a murder, and some dogging. Now, if that doesn’t make you want to read on, nothing will…

#1 – Stalybridge Celtic – 08:25

Stalybridge

We arrived at Stalybridge’s ‘Bower Fold’ ground, on time, to find it locked and deserted. I took a piss behind one of their stands (I was strangely desperate for the toilet already, rather than this being any kind of urinary protest at the absence of anyone to greet us), and we were back on our way.

#2 – Curzon Ashton – 08:45

Curzon

It was, sadly, the same story at Curzon – only without the piss. We had initially received a very enthusiastic response from the club a couple of months ago, promising an official welcome and photographs on the pitch but, alas, this never materialised. Bizarrely, however, the ground was actually open – presumably because they felt there was nothing worth stealing – so we managed to go in and take some photos anyway.

#3 – FC United of Manchester – 09:10

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To complete the hat-trick of disappointing Greater Manchester clubs, the ‘Old Trafford Deserters’ also hadn’t bothered to welcome our arrival – whether that be fans of the club or anyone more official – and the gate to the car park was locked, so we again just took a quick photo and left.

#4 – Chorley – 10:00

Chorley

Before arriving at Chorley, we decided to stop off at our first ‘bonus’ ground of the day – Bolton’s ‘Reebok Stadium’ (I refuse to call it the ‘Macron Stadium’, in the same way I still insist on referring to the ‘M.E.N. Arena’ and ‘Opal Fruits’), before heading on to Chorley.

In contrast to the first three clubs on our travels, we didn’t really want to meet anyone at Chorley, since – as a result of some recent transfer dealings between them and County – they don’t seem to like us very much. Consequently, even though a couple of their fans had already been supportive and donated, we rather feared that any ‘Magpies’ (their nickname) turning up to greet us, may very well do so fully-armed. One for sorrow, two to kick the living crap out of you…

Imagine our terror, therefore, when we arrived in the car park, only to have someone tap on my driver’s side window shortly afterwards. Having damn-near shit ourselves, we were relieved – and surprised – to discover that my brother had driven down from Preston to say hello and bring supplies.

Again, Chorley’s ground was left fully open, so the three of us had a quick look around, I took another piss behind the stand (I don’t know what was the matter with me, but I appeared to have developed the bladder of an incontinent pensioner) and we gave our heartfelt thanks to my brother, before heading off.

#5 – AFC Fylde – 10:45

Fylde

At AFC Fylde’s ‘Kellamergh Park’ (which appears to be situated in the grounds of a pub), we were greeted by another County fan, ‘Bringbacklenwhite’, and his lovely wife, who had also brought more supplies – two bottles of beer and some cakes. As we arrived bang on time, and since our next ground was a bit further away, we were able to spend a little longer with them in the glorious Lancashire sunshine.

#6 – Bradford Park Avenue – 12:15

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Bradford Park Avenue was another ground where we expected something of a more formal welcome, as I had been in touch with the club only the week before to ask for permission to lay a white rose at their ground. One of our donors had requested that we do this for her, in memory of her fellow Yorkshirewoman, Jo Cox MP, who was murdered recently.

Sadly, the only person at the ground when we arrived was there by chance, and was in the process of cleaning their club bar. It’s fair to say he was more than a little perturbed by two blokes in Stockport shirts turning up to ‘decorate’ the ground with foliage, but the club had said it was ok, so tough.

#7- Harrogate Town – 13:15

Harrogate

Remaining in sunny Yorkshire, we then travelled northwards to Harrogate, which was our planned lunch stop for the day. The only reason for selecting this ground over any other, was because our ETA was 1:15pm, and ‘lunch’ was expected to be snacks in the car, but the welcome we received was a fantastic surprise.

Not only were we met by some guys from the club (as well as aptly-named fellow County fan ‘Harrogate Hatter’), they then brought out a platter of sandwiches and cakes (which were delicious, and I’m not just saying that because they may read this) as well as some drinks from the bar.

Even better, as we were leaving, they informed us that a group of their fans had clubbed together, and would shortly be making a generous donation to our Just Giving page.

Harrogate Town, from that day onwards, will always have a special place in my heart (unless they beat us in next season’s play-off final, then they can fuck off).

#8 – North Ferriby United – 15:15

North Ferriby

If Harrogate was delightfully surprising, North Ferriby (who, Gareth and I often quip, are our ‘favourite of all the Ferribies’) was very much the opposite.

Not only was it a tiny, run down ground – which, having won promotion via the play-offs, will depressingly see North Ferriby play one league higher than County next season – there was no one around apart from a cricket match on the adjacent field, and they didn’t seem the types to take kindly to two blokes asking for donations.

The one good thing about North Ferriby? It was so shit, we could take a quick photo and get back on the road.

#9 – Gainsborough Trinity – 16:30

Prior to our arrival at Gainsborough Trinity (of which I have very little to say), two ‘highlights’ of the weekend took place. The first was planned, as I took my inaugural trip across the Humber Bridge (the best £1.50 of someone else’s money I have ever spent), and the second was very much not.

Gareth had consulted the map, and suggested we could detour, ever-so-slightly, to take in Scunthorpe’s ‘Glanford Park’ ground. I was keen to do this for two reasons: firstly, I have never seen it – and with Scunny being a League One side, I had hoped it would be more impressive than some of the grounds we had encountered thus far – but secondly, it gave me a rather childish (and entirely unoriginal, I imagine) idea for a ‘selfie’.

As we parked up next to two other cars in the secluded car park, Gareth went one way to take some photos of his own, while I positioned myself under the ‘Scunthorpe United’ sign, to try and line up the shot for my comedy photo.

As I stood there, with my phone at arm’s length, I can appreciate in hindsight that it may very well have looked like I was pointing the camera at the cars opposite. This didn’t occur to me at the time, as I had assumed they were unoccupied, but all of a sudden, a rather embarrassed looking man got out of one car, half-jogged to the other car, got in and drove hurriedly away, while the woman who was left in the first vehicle followed seconds later.

I don’t think my grinning and shouting “Oi Oi!” as they raced away will have helped, either. I bet they’re nervously waiting for my photographs to appear on some ‘doggers caught in the act’ site. And in a car park in Scunthorpe too – hardly showing a girl a good time, is it?

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(Side note: doesn’t ‘The Glanford Doggers’ sound like a terrible folk band?)

#10 – Alfreton Town – 17:30

Alfreton

I have never been to the centre of Alfreton, but if it is anything like the area where the football ground is based, I can only hope it is twinned with an industrial wasteland in Siberia, otherwise the partnership is distinctly unbalanced.

In truth, Gareth and I – perhaps unfairly – hated Alfreton long before we arrived, purely because it was so far out of our way when we were making good progress down the eastern side of England. And, when you have already agreed between you that ‘Alfreton can go fuck itself’, it needed to be especially pretty to change our minds. Unfortunately, on the prettiness scale, Alfreton Town’s ludicrously-named ‘Impact Stadium’ is some distance below Susan Boyle, and its only ‘impact’ is to make you want to gauge your own eyes out with a rusty spoon.

To make matters worse, as we pulled into the car park we were watched by a rather unsavoury looking chap who was sat, by himself, on a nearby wall. He was, as Gareth quite rightly pointed out, very similar to the character ‘Tom’ from Father Ted.

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‘Alfreton Tom’ continued to stare at us, as we parked up and began to hurriedly take photographs. Alarmingly, he then started walking over towards us, before standing with his hands in his pockets and grinning. I am sure, in hindsight, this was a grin of friendship, but at the time we both feared it was the last smile we would ever see.

We quickly tried to explain what we were doing, before he interrupted us to say that he knew why were there, as he had been following our progress on Twitter, and had some change to put in our collection tin. See, you should never judge a book by its cover, folks, and I feel rather guilty that we jumped to the conclusion we were about to be made into a nice new coat for a crazed lunatic to lounge around his cave in.

Alfreton Tom (not his real name), we salute you, Sir.

#11 – Boston United – 19:15

Boston

Our final ground of the day and, unlike the two which preceded it, Boston’s ‘York Street’ was all rather uneventful – save that we accidentally gate-crashed a wedding reception in order to try and use their toilet. Deciding against spoiling the happy couple’s big day, we instead made a hasty departure, keen to get to our overnight stop with my in-laws in Norwich.

We arrived almost exactly on schedule, filled the car up with fuel ready for the morning, ate a delicious meal cooked by my father-in-law, drank the beers given to us by my brother and Bringbacklenwhite, and crawled off to bed (separately, mind, we’re not Bert and Ernie).

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And, I shall tell you about the remainder of our adventure next week….

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Blog. Blog. Need. Blog.

In just under two months’ time, the European Football Championships will commence in France.

Annoyingly, England have once again started to churn out some half-decent performances immediately prior to a major tournament (the recent 3-2 victory against our old foes and neighbours Germany in particular), which invariably means that the English media will now go into a frenzy about our chances of doing really well at the tournament. This, of course, is a waste of time, since every sane football fan knows that England will either fail to qualify from the group, or we will lose on penalties in the quarter-finals, following a dodgy refereeing decision in normal time. We are England, after all, and those are our only two options.

This might sound like me being cynical and pessimistic (that’s because it is), but even though I am certain England will again disappoint the nation, I now have a renewed interest in international football – thanks in no small part to my eldest son, Ollie.

Ollie will turn six in a few weeks, which, for the mathematicians amongst you, means he was four when England played at the World Cup in Brazil two years ago. As expected, England were shit and didn’t qualify from the group stage, but that didn’t deter young Ollie, who continued to enthuse about the whole tournament right up until the final. True, this was partly because he was obsessed with learning about the national flags of each country, and partly because it was an excuse not to go to bed, but there was another reason he was so taken with Brazil 2014 – his Panini sticker book.

In a clever marketing ploy, the sticker books were given away free in shops and supermarkets throughout the land, with their glossy, colourful covers often displayed on stands at checkouts. Panini, despite being named after a flat toasted sandwich, are obviously no fools, and they realised that checkouts are the one place where children become hell-bent on grabbing anything they possibly can, as a last ditch attempt to be treated before leaving a store.

If Panini could give away as many sticker books as possible (and which reasonable parent would refuse their pleading child a free book?), then they could continue to sell packets of stickers – at 50p a go – in their millions. You know when drug dealers give potential junkies their first hit for free, in order to get them addicted? Yeah, it was like that.

The nation, in short, went sticker mental. And it wasn’t just the children, either. Grown men and women were obsessed with completing their books, even though it cost hundreds of pounds to do so. ‘Swap-meets’ were organised up and down the country, so that people could get together to do ‘swapsies’ with each other, in a bid to grasp the last few players they needed to triumphantly fill their books.

It was all rather sad when you think about it. And I bloody loved it.

You see, I never really got into sticker books as a kid, so although I loved collecting things, the world of Panini largely passed me by. I remember (very fondly) collecting little wooden American Football shirt key-rings with my friends at Primary School, then swapping any duplicates in the playground. They cost 10p from the ‘ice cream man’ (as far as I know, the same guy still visits the street where I grew up, even though he must now be well into his seventies), and for that you would also get a delicious bubble-gum. That’s value right there, kids.

I recall that everyone, and I do mean everyone, desperately wanted the Miami Dolphins key-ring, as they were the team of the late 1990s. In a moment of child-like impetuousness (well, I was a child), I ended up trading my pristine – and from memory, quite rare – San Diego Chargers key-ring, for a (rather tatty in comparison) Miami Dolphins one, and quickly realised what a fool I had been. I would have been eight or nine then, and I don’t think I have ever got over the bitter regret of that decision.

Shit, I’m welling up here just thinking about it.

Anyway, I digress. Ollie got his World Cup sticker book, and we began to purchase packets of stickers for him every time he was particularly well-behaved. None of his friends seemed to be collecting them, so he ended up trading swaps with my brother-in-law and my sister-in-law’s husband (which is not, before you ask, an extremely convoluted way of saying ‘my brother’).

Still, despite being able to trade little bits of sticky paper with two grown men who, at that stage at least, had no children of their own (not that they now have children together, you understand), Ollie was still some distance from completing his book. In desperation, I began to relax what I considered to be ‘good behaviour’, in order to justify buying more packs for him. It began gradually, with rewards for little things like ‘not wetting the bed’ (even though he had only done this perhaps once in the previous year), but as my desire and greed became more fervent, I started to get desperate:

“Ollie, you’ve been screaming for an hour now, and really shouldn’t have launched your dinner across the kitchen in temper, but at least you managed to miss mummy. That’s good enough, get your shoes on and we’ll go to the shop.”

I’m not proud of myself, but I needed a fix. You wouldn’t understand, unless they got to you too.

Then, on one glorious sunny afternoon in early June 2014, I took Ollie into town in order to give my wife some time alone with Isaac – who was only a few weeks old, and recently home from his extended stint in hospital.

We bought a few packets of stickers, and went to sit outside one of my favourite Sandbachian pubs to work our way through them. As I nipped inside to get a beer, we met one of the girls who looked after Ollie at nursery, and she spotted the sticker book he was proudly clutching under his arm. It turned out that her boyfriend, who was working behind the bar at the time, was also collecting the stickers, but had ‘a few swaps’ if Ollie fancied sifting through them. I think I responded with a little too much enthusiasm, and certainly before Ollie had any chance to speak.

She went upstairs in the pub, and returned a short while later with a large Tupperware container filled to the brim with stickers. There were hundreds of them. I was so excited, I believe I went a little light-headed, and may very well have wet myself slightly. Anyway, I bought my beer (and a blackcurrant squash for Ollie) and we sat outside in the sunshine to go through the box. Needless to say, there were so many stickers, I had to purchase more beer in order to justify remaining at the pub for what, ultimately, turned out to be a few blissful hours of peeling and sticking.

I remember – like it was yesterday – punching the air with unbridled joy, because we had finally collected Ivory Coast’s goalkeeper, Boubacar Barry.

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Surely the greatest name in world football, ever.

Having informed my wife that Ollie and I would go into town for ‘an hour or so’, she was understandably a little narked when we arrived back several hours later. To make matters worse, I was not only sunburnt, but also well on my way to inebriation and, consequently, grinning like a fucking imbecile. In my drunken state, I could not for the life of me understand why she didn’t share my excitement about Boubacar Barry. “But… but… his name sounds a bit like boobs! Or a car full of boobs! And just look at his FACE!”

She wasn’t at all impressed. It was totally worth it though.

Eventually, thanks to that monumental sticker haul at the pub, and some further swapsies with the brothers-in-law (why didn’t I just call them that in the first place?), Ollie got within a handful of players of completing his book, so we filled out the little form and sent it off to Panini. A few weeks later, the last few arrived and ‘his’ book was full. I’m not saying it is the greatest achievement of my life, but it’s certainly top five.

Of course, as any sticker collector will know, in order to fill one of these books, you invariably end up with hundreds of swaps, which become entirely useless as soon as the tournament is over. For some inexplicable reason, we still have them, and we apparently collected twelve of whoever-the-fuck this ugly Croat is:

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So, when the latest Panini book for the forthcoming Euros was released a few weeks ago, I didn’t take a great deal of persuading from Ollie to once again embark on the costly exercise of trying to fill the damn thing. My reasoning, if you can call it such, was that the European Championships are a smaller affair than the World Cup (for any non-geographers out there, Europe is smaller than the World) so, assuming squad sizes remain more-or-less constant, there should be less stickers to collect, right?

Wrong.

Panini, devious bastards that they are, have somehow managed to make the book bigger, by including not only the usual team photos and squads, but also various additions. We’ve only just started the book, so I don’t know who some of these people are, but I would not be at all surprised to find we are also now collecting stickers of singers, prominent politicians and landmarks from each country too.

Still, we have only bought ten packets of stickers so far, so we are still at the glorious stage of having just the one swapsie (screw you, Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and I guess it’s all downhill from now on. Over the coming months, I will most likely destroy a large chunk of Ollie’s University fund, by purchasing endless packets of stickers to feed my recurring addiction. Oh well, father-son bonding is ultimately more important than education anyway.

Besides, it’ll help to take Ollie’s mind off things, when England inevitably screw up.

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Ok, so I’ve now told you what I do for a living, and (whether I like it or not) that takes up a great deal of my time.

In my spare time, however, I have three great passions – my adoring wife, my two sons, and my football team (ok, technically four great passions, but I’m counting the kids as one). I will no doubt write about the boys in the not-too-distant future, as the shit they produce – one verbal (he’s four going on fourteen), and one literal (he’s not yet one) – often provide for amusing anecdotes. In contrast, however, my other half has warned that, if I ever write about her – particularly anything derogatory – I run the risk of losing the other thing I hold most dear. And I’ve grown quite fond of that over the years, so you won’t hear my wife mentioned again…. much.

So, for now, that leaves my beloved football club – Stockport County.  Make no mistake, she’s a cruel and harsh mistress at times, who often leaves me feeling empty, disappointed and bitter…. but she lets me go to the football occasionally so we’re still married (I suspect my impending castration will not be worth it for that joke, but I couldn’t resist).

My being a County fan is one of the first things people learn about me – often before I’ve even told them my name. If you’re kind enough to engage me on the topic, I will happily chat to you for hours. Equally, if you support one of County’s (many) rivals or, worse, raise an eyebrow and joke that you ‘didn’t know they were still going’, I will spend the same amount of time explaining why you, Sir, are an idiot.

And, whilst we do seem to have a disproportionate number of teams we’ve fallen out with over the years (Tranmere still owe us a new crossbar – dickheads), there are two main rivals that we detest above all others. This is despite the fact we haven’t played either of them for ages (one considerably more recently than the other, mind), and they seem far more interested in hating each other than worrying about us. In fairness, this might be because we’re 5 leagues apart.

You see, growing up in Stockport (and still living relatively close even now), I am constantly surrounded by supporters of both Manchester clubs and, with no exaggeration whatsoever, I dislike almost all of them. That’s always been the case, and it will remain that way until the day I go to the great Edgeley Park in the sky. I can tolerate a few – one of my oldest friends (and the godfather to my first-born), for example, is a season ticket holder at Old Trafford – but they remain few and far between. The majority, and particularly those who are not my friends, are pillocks of the highest order.

For those of you who perhaps don’t know where Stockport is, (I like to refer to your kind as ‘Southerners’), it’s around 6 miles or so from Manchester. So, while I suppose Macclesfield Town would be considered our nearest rivals by many, and we’ve certainly played them more often, we County fans have always (almost literally) lived in the shadow of our Manchester neighbours.

Historically, I’d imagine that most County fans would profess a hatred for the red half of Manchester rather than the blue half, and I’m no exception. Hand on heart, I can’t give just one reason why. It might have been my Dad’s influence. Or it might have been down to Old Purple Nose and his ‘we’ll keep playing until we win’ attitude, coupled with the fact he seemed to have a number of referees under his control. I swear he must have had compromising pictures of Howard Webb stashed away somewhere.

I suspect, though, above all else it’s the ‘fans’. I don’t mean those who turn up every week (my aforementioned friend being one), or even those who avidly follow the team, but can’t regularly visit Old Trafford due to geographical or financial restraints. I mean those die-hard ‘fans’ who, when asked, would struggle to name more than a couple of the squad they supposedly idolise.

I asked one such ‘fan’, by way of a test of their loyalty a few years ago, who United were playing in the derby that weekend. She wasn’t sure. It’s the derby love, the clue is in the bloody name.

When I was at school, supporting United was tragically the default. If cornered by a bigger lad in the playground and ordered to divulge your team, those who didn’t really follow football (or just wanted to avoid a beating) would invariably say that they supported United. Of course, my response would proudly be “Stockport County”, which would momentarily confuse said bully and provide me sufficient time within which to make my escape.

So, in the past, it was always the red side of Manchester I despised more. I think, aside from the above reasons, it was partly because City were always United’s poor cousin. And not a cousin you’re quite fond of, either, but rather that odd-looking one with not many teeth who you suspect will end up on Jeremy Kyle in the not-too-distant future. Whilst City were still significantly larger than County, and their fan base several times ours, we almost pitied them. They seemed to have genuine fans, who were constantly being trodden on by United, and we could almost relate to that.

Above all else, though, they had a delightful habit of giving us points.

It seems hard to believe when you look at the respective fortunes of County and City over the last decade, but it wasn’t that long ago that we were competing in the same league. Admittedly, we faced City five times between 1902 and 1960 and we lost every game. But then, in the 1990s, they began their hilarious slump down the leagues, just as County were rising to meet them. In 1997, while I was doing my A-levels, County met City at Edgeley Park for the first time in decades and frankly annihilated them, 3-1.

Ok, so we lost the return fixture at Maine Road the following April, but we still finished eighth that season, in what is now the Championship, just 9 points off a play-off place for the Premier League. City? Oh, they got relegated in twenty-second and dropped into what is now League 1.

Since then, we’ve played City competitively on four occasions and not lost (won two, drawn two). The last time we played City in the league was in March 2002 when we scored twice in the last 5 minutes to win 2-1. We bloody loved playing City.

Fast forward a few years, and some ludicrously-rich Sheikh comes along and ruins everything.

Fair enough, City were well above us in the leagues by the time Sheikh Mansour started spewing the sort of money into the club that would make Abramovich’s buttocks clench, but there was always that glimmer of hope that we would one day face City in the same division again, so they could give us all of those lovely points once more. This now seems very unlikely, at least in my life time.

Suddenly, City fans were appearing from everywhere. They became more like United with their arrogance, big-headedness and disdain for County. Up until then, I’d occasionally encounter one of them making a joke at County’s expense, but a quick reminder of recent results between the teams would usually shut them up. Now, however, City fans either conveniently forget their recent past, by sticking their fingers in their ears and wailing Blue Moon until you get bored and leave, or they haven’t been City fans long enough to have the slightest clue what you’re on about. “Do you honestly expect me to believe we were in the same league as Stockport County less than 15 years ago?” they would no doubt say, if only they could eloquently string that many words together, or count to 15 without taking their shoes and socks off.

Admittedly, they do still have their genuine fans and fair play to those who stuck with City through the tough times, I don’t begrudge them some success – within reason. My gripe is with the ‘new money’ City fans. Those who invariably miss half the game while facing in the wrong direction and bouncing up and down like some deranged kangaroo. Try asking a City fan to explain what the point of that is.

These are the ‘fans’ who tore up their tickets and stormed out of Eastlands with a few minutes remaining in the match against QPR at the end of the 2011-12 season, and we all know how that finished, don’t we? (Mostly because Jonathan Pearce won’t shut up about it on MOTD, every time Sergio Aguero so much as farts near a football).

I remember watching the hoards of knuckle-dragging cretins, pouring out of the stadium and slamming various items of merchandise on the ground in disgust, only to hear the cheer of those who had stayed behind to witness Aguero’s last minute winner clinch the title – and then try desperately to force their way back into the ground to celebrate. I swear, when I watched that, I laughed so hard a little bit of wee came out.

So, if I’m asked nowadays which half of Manchester I despise more, it’s a harder question to answer than it used to be. This is best explained by reference to my Fantasy Football team, where I have always historically had a self-imposed ban on signing any United players, but in recent seasons this embargo has been expanded to include anyone from City too. Oh, and Luis Suarez. And John Terry.

I detest both Manchester clubs, and most of their fans, but for largely different reasons.

I’ll save “why I hate Burnley” for another time, and instead I’ll leave you with a popular County chant:

“United’s shit, City’s worse, we always put the County first…

Na-na na-na-na, na-na na-na-na” (repeat)

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